Ecocentric

Can Congress Break America’s Addiction to Oil?

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Pity  the British—or at least the English. As if it’s not bad enough that their perpetually disappointing football side could only manage a 0-0 tie with 30th-ranked Algeria—prompting human bulldog Wayne Rooney to complain about being booed by his own fans, because that never happens in sport—certain parts of the British media have been taking national umbrage at the treatment of BP CEO Tony Hayward:

London’s Daily Mail said Hayward, a 53-year-old British geologist who has been chief executive of BP for three years, “was subjected to a grilling so savage yesterday that it was more like ancient Rome than Capitol Hill.” It said the “hapless boss and his company” were treated like “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Hayward “was always going to get a caning from U.S. congressmen playing to the gallery,” the Daily Express said in an editorial. “Cheap lines about taking his ‘golden parachute back to England’ revealed the anti-British prejudice that was at work.”

I’m not sure it’s quite accurate to compare the House Energy and Commerce committee to the Roman Senate—for one thing, Henry Waxman’s mustache would have been completely out of style in 0 A.D., and America isn’t in the practice of crucifixion. (Firing squads, though, that’s a different case.) But the Fleet Street tabloids have a point. We may want to publicly flog Hayward for the Gulf spill—now that would be Roman—but this is all happening because we can’t break our addiction to oil, as the Daily Mail needled:

The insatiable demand for oil of the American lifestyle is what has prompted the need for so much inherently risky deep-water drilling. Until the Americans take action to curtail this demand then their complaints amount to nothing more than the squealing of hypocrites.

Without letting Hayward off the hook—though it’s not even clear he’s in charge any more—if the only long-term response to the oil spill is to bankrupt BP, we’ll have utterly wasted this crisis. That’s why President Barack Obama, in his Oval Office speech on Tuesday, made a call for real and lasting energy reform, to “unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.” Even if the speech was generally panned by armchair pundits, like me, for failing to take climate change seriously, now truly could be a transformative moment for energy policy in the U.S., if only because the forces that often stymie reform—like the oil industry—are reeling from the spill. (Witness the backlash against Republican Representative Joe Barton, even by other members of the GOP, after he apologized to Hayward during congressional hearings on Thursday for the $20 billion escrow fund BP was forced to set up.)

The question, as always, is what the Senate is willing to do. (The House of Representatives, forever completing their homework early, passed a far-reaching carbon cap-and-trade bill nearly a year ago.) Senate majority leader Harry Reid held a party caucus Thursday specifically to focus on energy legislation, with the hopes that something could be acted upon before the August recess, but came up with no clear consensus. Despite a presentation by carbon cap advocates John Kerry and Joe Lieberman—along with presentations on the need for carbon pricing from leading executives like GE’s Jeff Immelt—energy legislation that includes carbon pricing remains a tough sell, according to Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn:

Reid insisted that he had made no decisions during the meeting on whether to advance a climate and energy bill that includes a controversial price on greenhouse gas emissions. For now, Democrats don’t have the votes to pass such a plan and are still casting about for a formula that can attract moderates on both sides of the aisle.

“I’d support it, but I don’t see 60 votes for it,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

That leaves a few other possibilities—another climate bill by Susan Collins and Maria Cantwell that would refund carbon auction revenue back to the public, and a bill by Jeff Bingaman that would focus only on a nationwide renewable energy standard and incentives for alternative power, but wouldn’t include a carbon price. It’s the latter route that Democrats may end up taking—as Feinstein said, getting a filibuster-proof majority for a carbon cap doesn’t seem to be possible, even in the wake of the oil spill. At the same time, Democratic liberals in the Senate have threatened not to vote for any bill that lacks a carbon price, so that still leaves us in the woods. The good news is that Reid is scheduling more meetings.

In the meantime the oil spill continues, although on Friday Admiral Thad Allen was able to announce that BP had managed to bring another part of its containment system online. The Q4000 mobile drilling unit actually draws up oil through the pipe that had been used in the ill-fated top kill operation in May. Allen says that by early next week, BP should be able to process up to 28,000 barrels a day. Given that the new leak estimate is 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, that could either be a lot, or less than half of the total flow. But it does represent an improvement—although because BP lacks the ability to transport all that oil to shore, for a while thousands of barrels a day will have to be burnt. Which will look even worse than this picture, taken today from the reporting expedition organized by the TEDxOilSpill conference:

Overflight of Deepwater Horizon oil spill site by TEDxOilSpill

What you’re seeing is the ultimate consequence of America’s dependence on oil. Well, that, and cost-cutting by BP. And years of determined deregulation by the U.S. government. But it begins with us—a subject TIME will  return to this summer—and it’ll be up to us to make the right changes. Lest we be continued to be called names by journalists who hail from a country that apparently can’t even play their national sport very well:

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